„I learnt a lot about human rights and I know where I can get legal help” – report on the course in the prison of Eger


„I learnt a lot about human rights and now I know where I can go for legal support. We have heard about issues that we don’t get to know in everyday life” – this is how one participants summarized what she learned at the training on citizenship co-held by the School of Public Life and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union. The training was held in the fall semester of the 2016/2017 academic year and its aim was to raise awareness about the opportunities for the enforcement of civic, democratic and fundamental rights and to develop participants’ abilities for self-advocacy. The course took place in a women’s prison in Eger and we were happy to see many returning participants: around half of the 18 women had already participated in our training on social inequalities held in the same institution in the previous semester.

At the beginning of the course, we got to know universal human rights. Participants discussed the rights listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and tried to agree on which ones were the most important for them. Although not every group managed to reach a consensus on the 10 most important human rights, the discussions were good and participants tried to convince each other with strong arguments. From the discussion, it became clear that human rights cannot be divided and are mutually related, creating a uniform system, where it is not possible to get rid of one element without endangering the others.

During our next session, we studied the relationship between civil, political and social rights and examined the importance of self-determination with the help of a simulation game. First, we looked at signing a contract with a phone service provider, entering into a loan agreement and submitting a request for social aid. Second, using a real medical information package, we checked the conditions for self-determination in the health care system, which information is useful for patients to make responsible decisions, and how to assert our right to information.

Then, we studied the role of the state, constitutionalism and the rule of law and we also discussed the advantages of democracy and the deficiency of the democratic institutions. In this context, we clarified the most important things we need to know in order to exercise our right to vote (within and outside the prison), and we also listed the opportunities of civic participation in between two elections. The participants had many questions about different types of elections and about how someone can become a candidate. From the conversation it became clear that before the training participants had little knowledge about the right to be elected, but our discussion made them realize its importance. Some participants expressed an interest in becoming elected representatives for their own communities.

During the last few sessions, participants got to know the institutional system of the state of Hungary. We focused on what kind of cases belong to which authority, law court or institution, and where we can go if we want to practice our civil rights. We dedicated a separate class to the topic of discrimination and the possible actions against it. Participants found these classes particularly useful. At the end of the course, we dealt with the rights of detainees and opportunities for advocacy after their release.

We ended the training by playing Sociopoly, a board game that simulates life in small-town Hungary. Participants couldn’t wait to try if they would succeed in breaking out of poverty. Then, sadly, what we learnt together is that regardless of the strategies they chose, it was almost impossible to break out of the desperate situation that many small towns and villages are locked in. It is clear that the only path, according to what the participants learned during the training, is: „we need to stand up for our rights” and „we cannot give up”.

Based on the experiences of this year’s training, we want to improve this course in the following ways:

1.     The detainees have noticed the decline of democratic institutions and the rule of law and their life circumstances before detention and after release are often characterized by vulnerability to state institutions. So, in the future, we will narrow the detailed exploration of the ideals of democracy and the rule of law, because participants are aware of this ideals – precisely because of their vulnerability. (In short, state institutions should operate exactly the opposite of how they treat these people today.) Instead, we are planning to put more emphasis on the development and acquisition of civic skills and knowledge for advocacy in today’s Hungary. We will also try to clear some of the more abstract questions about democracy and the rule of law through practical examples such as the difference between legal aid and interest-based advocacy

2.     In the future – during the courses held for people outside penitentiary institution – participants will have to develop an independent civic project and demonstrate an action plan. We would like all participants to think about how they could use the tool-kit gained at the training when they fight against social injustice. The others would give feedback about the action plans, so that participants in the future would use what they will have learnt immediately for the problems they experience in their environment or everyday life.

3.     In groups where trying different „life strategies” during Sociopoly is not particularly new because participants have already tried these in real life, we will pay particular attention to rework the game in a way that can help participants learn new ways of responding to injustice. If this game cannot be adopted to the needs and interests of the groups, we will try and find another game to end the training with.

Mariann Dósa and Attila Mráz